A Bridge too Far

Posted on Fri 30 June 2017 in Articles • 5 min read

A few days ago, popular Journalling app, Day One, announced it would adopt a subscription model. Over on Macrumors.com, the criticism is vociferous. I have never used Day One so I'm not going to question the product or its merit–if you need or want a dedicated journalling app to write a journal, that's your business. What I want to question is the subscription model itself, why developers feel like they have to adopt it and what it means for content creators.

Firstly, lets look at why developers are adopting this model. The majority state they do so because they feel it's the only sustainable way in which they can continue to operate. The bottom line is the bottom line; they write and sell software to make a living.

The software market though has changed radically since the days when we loaded CD-ROMs into tower PCs. Back then software took teams of people to create using C++ for operating systems that didn't have a fraction of the system-wide APIs that give you so much functionality for free. There was no GitHub, filled with endless open-source libraries you can drop into a project.

Today, the computing device people most use are mobile phones and most of their computing is done in browsers and apps tied to services. Apps are sold in digital stores and delivered over high-speed broadband.

Platform vendors have ruthlessly fostered these market conditions. Apple and Google know that apps – the more and cheaper the better – are what bring people to their platforms. The paucity of apps kills new entrants like Ubuntu Phone, Sailfish and Firefox OS and explains why no-one buys Windows Phones. As a result, the big vendors have bent over backwards creating better development tools and richer APIs to make developing apps easier than ever.

Creating apps, while not easy, is much easier. More people are programming and coding is being pushed as a skill as necessary as reading, writhing and maths by politicians and teachers. So programmers means more software is being developed and published. Competition has increased considerably and Economics 101 teachers us more competition pushes down prices…

…and down indeed they came.

In the face of stiffer competition, many developers raced to the bottom in terms of pricing. Down the iTunes pricing tiers they went until they reached 99c or went freemium.

The problem is this changed the way consumers think. Perceived value of a thing is damaged when it is available free or at very little cost. So consumers, especially in the all-important mobile space, expect to pay less or pay nothing at all for the apps that give functionality to their expensive smartphones and tablets. Content deals provided by mobile phone carriers don't help matters either.

Couple this with vendors' refusal to introduce upgrade pricing and developers (who traditionally relied on upgrades) turned to micro-transactions (aka in-app purchases) and of course, subscriptions.

Subscription-based software is not only on the rise (particularly in productivity apps) but it's being further incentivised by Apple. They now give developers a bigger slice of the royalties pie when consumers subscribe to a service for more than a year. So we're going to see the trend of developers adopting this model rise even more.

For content delivery, subscription makes sense and there's a history of this in magazines and newspapers. I accept that affordable subscriptions makes sense for music, video, comics, books or video games. I'm more than happy to rent videos from iTunes as I was from video rental shops before they went bust. This is content created by others and licensed to the consumer for consumption. The consumer does not own this material; even if you buy a physical CD, DVD or book, you own object on which the content is stored but you do not own the content itself.

But when a developer charges a subscription for productivity software then as a content creator, my alarm bells start ringing. For a long time, my dad worked as a self-employed house painter and idea of asking him – or any tradesperson – to rent the tools of his trade would be ludicrous. But that is exactly what developers who adopt this model are now asking us, the tradespeople of the knowledge economy, to do.

Foremost in my mind is what becomes of my content if I stop paying? The problem is compounded when the software is tied to a proprietary format, storage system or web service (or all the above). With data stored in the cloud and/or in a proprietary binary format then it's not hard to imagine a world where content creators are held to ransom by developers. The ironic comparison with ransomware such as WannaCry should not be lost on anyone.

This creates a dependency. Dependency, as Richard Stallman would have it, is an instrument of unjust power between the provider and the consumer. It's business model traditionally used by drug dealers.

What happens to my productivity if an app I depend on becomes a service that I no-longer wish to pay for? If Scrivener adopted this model (complete in my worst nightmare with custom backend for syncing) it would be a tremendous disruption to the way I write. It would be sold on the basis of sustainability with premium features added to sweeten the deal (i.e. sync without needing DropBox). I would become dependent on the software and its developer, not only for new projects but to access the 11 years worth of content I've written.

Worse still, imagine what happens if the developer goes belly up, switches off the servers and never releases the patch they promised that would unlock and return your content to you. In layman's terms: you're fucked.

Naturally, this is worst-case scenario stuff and most developers are decent people just out to make a living. But we're on a slippery slope; vendor lock-in is a time-tested strategy for dealing with competition.

It's this worst-case scenario that makes me unwilling to buy into subscriptions.

I should pause right here that Scrivener's developers have frequently stated they will not adopt this model. Presumably the fair price they charge is sustainable for them. This brings me to my final point and a cautionary message to app developers.

I, and many others, appreciate and pay good coin for good software. Even on mobile I gladly paid the $30AUD for Scrivener and would do so again. I've paid for Workflow, Editorial (twice), Pythonista (twice), Textastic, Scanner Pro, Terminus, Pixelmator. Every one of these apps is well over the $1USD average app price. On the desktop I've paid even more over the years – much more and I don't begrudge a cent.

It's not the cost of subscription that bothers me–it's the change in relationship between me and the developer. When I use proprietary software, the relationship is already skewed in the developers favour. I rationalise this so long as things like runtime, file persistence and format are open or under my control. But when you add a subscription the scales are tipped overwhelmingly against me, the user.

To those developers who raced to the bottom during the app boom. You chose to devalue your software. Now with livelihoods at peril you expect a bottom-feeding user base to pay a subscription – sorry, I wish you and your business well but I'm out; that's bridge too far.

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